Horses help kids be kids


There is a place of second chances for both children and horses, a place where humans and horses can learn – together – to trust again.

This place is called Tom Ro Haven for Equines and Children, it is a registered non-profit organisation, and it is run by Glencairn Heights resident Gillian McCulloch.

Currently, the haven is in Joostenbergvlakte, but Gillian is daring to dream of bringing her work home with her to the Far South.

Steven Spielberg once said that the bones of the story of The War Horse are a love story, and that’s what makes it universal. There are the same bones in this story.

“The horses and ponies, all rescues – have been saved from abattoirs and gangs, from places all across the Peninsula – and all of them have been neglected, hurt or abused,” Gillian says.

They have all survived their own sort of war.

And so have the children who visit them.

The children involved in Tom Ro Haven’s programme live at The Homestead in Khayelitsha, a shelter for children who are either neglected, orphaned or in need of emergency care, in a safe place.

At Tom Ro Haven, the two meet.

“We use our horses for various programmes which include skills development with troubled, orphaned and underprivileged youth,” Gillian explains.

“For us to grow and to make a positive impact on the community we live in and those we live near to, we want to grow what we are doing,” she says.

Gillian’s dream is to find suitable land in the Far South for her horses where local children can benefit.

“At the moment, we are in Joostenbergvlakte, and it’s very expensive and time consuming to drive out there. We do it, of course, but we want to reach more children. And horses. And when I see the need in places like Ocean View and Masi, I yearn to find land here,” she says.

Tom Ro Haven provides a variety of community service programmes for local schools, equine-assisted therapy, as well as a number of community outreach programmes where they supply goods, materials and food to those in the grip of poverty.

The sanctuary hopes to rebuild children’s self esteem and confidence.

There are 12 rehabilitated horses which are part of the Tom Ro Haven programme.

There are between 12 and 15 boys from The Homestead who are taken to Joostenbergvlakte on the weekends, but Gillian wants to do more, reach more children, save more horses.

“If we were closer, we could run income-generating programmes such as half-leasing the horses – and we could build a stronger youth development focus, with children in our area,” she says.

“We now have two highly internationally qualified equine therapists, so we can officially offer certified equine-assisted therapy,” she says.

“We want to help young people develop empathy for animals.”

The children are taught about animal management, conservation, the environment and the importance of conserving natural resources. They are also taught about horse management, and eventually, about horse riding, and they learn respect for themselves, one another, and animals.

Gillian says the far-reaching benefits of horses as therapy is clinically well documented. “Horses are the most amazing animals. They can pick up on any emotional and physical distress. The change we see in the youngsters when they engage with our horses is just beautiful. When they experience first-hand the relationships that can develop between these sometimes alarmingly big and aloof animals, a corner is turned in them; and the horses,”she says.

“The effect on the children is remarkable. Their school work improves, they feel a deeper compassion towards all animals – and their classmates – and eventually themselves. With that, and the responsibilities shared at Tom Ro Haven, the children grow in confidence and become ambassadors for compassion in their schools and communities.”

In 2006, Gillian lost both her parents and her nephew in different incidents, and she and her son and daughter all decided to volunteer with the SPCA’s horse unit as a way of coping. This opened her eyes to the dire conditions many horses live in, and Gillian recognised that the horses and children could help one another. And so, Tom Ro Haven was established, and the work began. And so did the love.

“Currently we house, rescue and rehabilitate, abused, neglected and unwanted horses. Often we are their last resort. If we were not here to take them, they would be put to sleep,” Gillian says.

Tom Ro Haven, a registered non-profit organisation, was founded by Gillian, Stephanie, Patrick and Sherilyn McCulloch, Sarah Millward, Kim Dale and Wendy Moulder.

Siboniso Qubeka, 18, one of the youngsters who has been part of the process from the beginning, says: “The horses help to take the stress away, and then, they helped me to learn to communicate with people,” he say. “Before I joined this programme I didn’t know how to treat others. I used violence. Now, I have learned how to treat others well.”

Sherilyn says she had suffered terribly from anxiety and panic attacks and attributes great restoration to the horses, saying it was humbling being around animals so much larger and more powerful than oneself, and which love one uncondition-ally.

“Also working with the children – it is the most uplifting thing to see what these magnificent animals can do for such young lives.”

Tom Ro Haven is self-funded, with no help from the government or corporates.

To help in any way, contact Gillian on 021 786 1457 or 078 747 6965, or email her on